SAN DIEGO -- Tom Izzo grew up in Iron Mountain, in the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Toughness is apparently part of the terrain. And no challenge for Izzo seems to be enough.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that Izzo and his trusted friend, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, were adamant about making the Carrier Classic occur.
Izzo got North Carolina coach Roy Williams on board when this was first discussed several years ago, and the two have been anxiously waiting for this day.
“We didn’t know the details, we didn’t know if we were playing in Iraq, here or Lake Michigan or in the Atlantic Ocean,’’ Izzo said. “There is no gimmick to this. We don’t need the extra exposure. We’re trying to give back.’’
Hollis said that Izzo was so moved from his time coaching in front of the troops in Kuwait a number of years ago that he wanted to make sure this event took place.
“I saw him tear up today,’’ Hollis said of Izzo’s emotions when he boarded the USS Carl Vinson on Thursday. “He was emotional. He lives for these kinds of things. The Final Four is special, but this will rank up there in his mind.’’
It already has -- and the tipoff hasn’t even occurred yet.
“My first impression far superseded what I thought it could be about seven or eight years ago when we tried to get this thing together,’’ Izzo said. “At first we were going to play two military schools. But if you could have seen our players’ eyes. There was such an appreciation for what we’re doing. It’s bigger than the game. It’s bigger than North Carolina or Michigan State. It’s a dream come true for us.’’
Hollis said challenges like this game are exactly what Izzo is about.
“He loves this,’’ Hollis said. “It’s in his nature. It’s in his background. It’s a unique quality. There are other coaches who had the opportunity to play here. But not everyone wanted to take the risks.’’
Michigan State will head home for two days before going to New York to play Duke in the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden. No one plays UNC and Duke in their first two games. It just doesn't happen.
But it’s what his players have come to expect.
“That’s coach,’’ Michigan State senior forward Draymond Green said. “He’s competitive. He was raised that way. It doesn’t say something about us. It says something about the players that came before us that built this program. It’s a credit to Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves and Steve Smith and guys like that. Without them, we don’t play North Carolina or Duke. No one would want us playing in the Champions Classic or on an aircraft carrier.’’
Green said that few teams would ever start off playing the No. 1 team in the country and then one of the top programs in Duke.
“We’re going against the best,’’ Green said. “By the time we get to the heart of the Big Ten schedule, our freshmen will have seen everything. They will have played against the best. It will help us down the road.’’
Keith Appling said he came to Michigan State because he knew Izzo would put him in games like this.
“I always knew we’d have one of the best schedules every year,’’ he said.
Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood would never have had the chance to participate in games like this had he not found a way to get to East Lansing for one season. Wood was simply in awe.
“I just feel blessed to be a part of this team,’’ he said. “This is a dream for me. I’m just trying to soak it all in and go through as much of it as I can. I appreciate being in a game like this.’’
We have gotten used to Izzo scheduling an NCAA field before the Big Ten even begins. It is his nature. It’s what he does.
He is comfortable enough with his job, his staff, his players and his administration to put his team in tremendous situations. Izzo jumped at playing in Ford Field against Kentucky as a precursor to playing North Carolina in the same venue in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge before the Final Four.
But nothing will hold as much weight for him as this game, for the troops, in front of the sailors, and on the USS Carl Vinson. Izzo was anxious on the court Thursday night. He couldn’t wait for Friday. Hollis had the initial idea. Izzo didn’t hesitate when approached. And now it’s finally here.
“We’re doing something nobody else has done,’’ Izzo said. “There are a lot of great players and programs, but none will have a memory maker like this. No one has ever done something like this.’’